BUSTING THE BIKERS
On a starlit Wednesday night in November of last year, about three dozen members of the Dirty Dozen Motorcycle Club are gathered at a dusty truck yard on North 27th Avenue. It is the weekly meeting of the club's Cave Creek chapter, although members from the Phoenix and Mesa chapters are also present.
Assembled is the virtual brain trust of what police routinely describe as "Arizona's most powerful and violent biker gang." Among those pressing into the smoky, one-room clubhouse are Norton, Glaze, Skitz, Hoover, Pisshead, Bumper, Deadeye, Jamaica Rick, Dale, Warlord Joey, and Sleepy.
These hard-breathing, shaggy men with myriad tattoos are thugs of nearly mythic proportions, according to police descriptions and daily-newspaper reports. Cunning and intimidation are their means, debauchery their end.
"They think about nothing but crime from the time they get up in the morning until they go to bed at night," says Lieutenant David Gonzales of the state Department of Public Safety's organized crime division. "When you get all of these people together, it's just a time bomb."
On this night at the truck yard, the master criminals find themselves in a vexing situation. Because the state's most violent biker gang conducts its meetings by Robert's Rules of Order--albeit with less formality than the average garden club or legislature--its efforts to uphold decorum can become more comic than criminal.
Tonight, members have already covered old business (the Halloween party in Tucson was a success, although it would have been nice if attendance had been better).
They have also covered new business (there will be a swap meet at the truck yard in three weeks to raise legal defense funds, and members have been given fliers to pass out promoting the event).
Now the brethren are eager to adjourn to a topless bar, but confusion has erupted. No one can remember for sure who has the floor, or whether a motion to adjourn was made properly--if one was made at all.
"Are we fucking adjourned, or what?" one member queries. Others clamor that they have new business to bring up, if it is still appropriate.
Chapter president Glaze, seeking rescue from the parliamentary quagmire, turns to Warlord Joey for help. The club's vice president, Hoover, stands to the side, looking perplexed, as he often does.
Through sheer voice power, Warlord Joey quiets the club and wrests back control. He defers to Glaze, who decides a new motion is the safest route to propriety, and calls for one.
"I motion we end this fucking thing," a member says.
"All right," the presiding officer replies, with some relief. "Motion has been made. Let's go look at some naked chicks."
Calm returns. In a few minutes, the Harley-Davidsons are pulling out of the truck yard, making a racket that sounds like a gaggle of tap-dancing drunks. But only a handful of bikes falls in for the ride to the Boots N' Brims bar on the west side of I-17.
Other members quietly follow behind in their cars and trucks.
It is a bit humiliating, members admit when they reach the bar, but on this night, most of the motorcycle club is without motorcycles. About five weeks earlier, in a massive series of raids involving more than 400 law enforcement officers, many of the club members' bikes were seized as potential evidence in an ongoing investigation of the club.
The raids have hit the Dozen hard.
"My heart is fucking broke. I'm not shitting you," gripes Bumper, a 45-year-old lithographer. "Hey, I got a 65-fucking-thousand-a-year job. I can't believe how I'm being fucked over here."
Club members are barely settling in with their first beers to watch the dancers when someone runs into the bar and announces that the cops are outside. That is not an unusual occurrence when the Dirty Dozen gathers.
Club members spill onto the sidewalk and find themselves facing a parking lot ringed with Phoenix police cars.
A helicopter hovers overhead and a paddy wagon sits nearby.
One officer tells club members that police were merely responding to a silent alarm at a pawnshop that abuts the topless bar. As long as they're here, the police look over the short line of bikes and check a few IDs. After some brief, hot words, the police find nothing to justify any arrests and pull out.
The Dirty Dozen members know what has just happened. Police, they note, do not routinely send a half-dozen cars and a helicopter every time a silent alarm goes off at a pawnshop.
The cops say that is absolutely correct.
@body:Lieutenant David Gonzales sits across a table at the First Watch restaurant, clean-cut and friendly, eating a bagel. "In our viewpoint, this is a criminal organization," he says. "This is not a social club, like they say. The Dirty Dozen club is based on violence and intimidation. Our theory is that they're involved in a multitude of crimes."
Gonzales states his case politely. In truth, if court records and grand jury transcripts are any measure, police investigators consider the Dirty Dozen members uniquely low forms of life.
The club masterminds one of the state's largest methamphetamine rings, police claim. Its members beat and kill people at will, and proudly stitch to their sleeveless vests the shoulder patches of police officers they have slain.
Altogether, police say, the approximately 130 current members of the club have thus far racked up more than 600 criminal charges.
The police say the members award each other special badges for performing oral sex on women in front of witnesses. The badges sport different colors, depending on whether the woman is white or black, menstruating or not, dead or alive.
They buy, sell and trade their wives and girlfriends, the police version goes, and love only their Harleys, colors, guns and drugs.
These are not exaggerations, police investigators have claimed in affidavits, grand jury proceedings and court hearings.
"The 'colors' symbolize the member's adopted family--i.e., the club--and members have even claimed that their 'colors' are more important to them than their wives or biological family," reads one typical police affidavit regarding the club.
"A gang member's loyalty and dedication to his fellow members run deep," the affidavit continues. "A strictly enforced code of silence ensures the confidentiality of gang activities and operations. If a member breaks the code of silence, he may be hunted down and severely disciplined, which can result in his death."
A sinister picture, club members say, if it were true.
"These guys are fucking crazy," says Kenneth "Norton" Johnston, a Mesa chapter member and one of the police's favorite targets of investigation. "They are obsessed."
"They're renegade cops," says Burr, one of the club's founding members. "They really have a thing against us."
The police, club members say, are chasing a myth of their own creation, a largely fictional version of outlaw motorcycle gangs derived from old movies and dubious intelligence.
"We've grown out of the 60s," explains Bo. "We're in the 90s. I don't know where these fuckers are."
It is true that some members of the club have criminal records--including some old homicides. Police point out that at least four current members of the club have been charged with murder, including a 1980 bar fight in Claypool that left two men dead, an unrelated killing in 1983 and a 1983 shooting outside of a north Phoenix bar.
Though more than a decade in the past, the 1983 bar killing is typical of biker violence, police say. John Turner, a 44-year-old electrician, stopped at Gary's Lounge for a few beers after work.
When Turner asked the girlfriend of one biker to dance, other patrons--reportedly including Dirty Dozen members--threw the man out of the bar. Ticked off, Turner got in his pickup truck and started running over a line of more than 20 bikes parked outside the bar.
As he continued trying to crush the bikes, Turner was shot and killed by someone in the crowd of angry bikers that had run out of the bar to the parking lot. Police were unable to determine who fired the fatal shots.
But club members say the frequency of such violence is greatly exaggerated, and, in fact, most of the stories police have to tell about the gang are tales from the old days.
The "hundreds" of criminal charges filed against them, they say, begin to dwindle quickly once the minor charges--like disturbing the peace and failure to provide proof of insurance--are weeded out.
Some members have faced more serious assault, burglary, sexual assault and drug charges, members acknowledge, but most of those incidents occurred years ago--and after all, this is an outlaw motorcycle club, they say, not the Boy Scouts. Of course members own a lot of weapons and macho paraphernalia like machetes, chains, police scanners, night-vision goggles and bulletproof vests, they say.
But it takes a long jump, they say, to get from grown men's toys to the police-proffered scenarios of routine violence, debauched sex and unending drug dealing and consumption.
Many of the club's members do not have criminal records, they point out. About a third of them don't even drink at meetings.
Most of them hold steady jobs. They have wives, or girlfriends, and children. (None can recall selling or trading girlfriends or family members.) They don't know when they are supposedly finding time to be the state's highest-volume methamphetamine traffickers.
"I've been at the same job for going on ten years," says "Jamaica" Rick Solesbee, a 40-year-old member whose job is making Ping golf clubs. "I leave for work at the same time every day, at 5:30 in the morning. There is nothing illegal involved in anything I do. Everybody in our chapter, they have jobs. They pay taxes."
Solesbee has no criminal record. Nor does Kenneth "Bumper" Krenkel, the 45-year-old lithographer, who has been in the club for 12 years, and served stints as a chapter treasurer and vice president.
"Either I'm the smartest motherfucker on the face of this Earth," bellows Krenkel, who does have a temper, "or I'm abiding by the same rules that maybe you are."
Richard "Glaze" Steiner, 38, the Cave Creek chapter president, has worked for the county for more than ten years. His most recent recorded criminal act was a DUI citation in 1983.
If they have killed police officers, club members say, it's news to them, and they don't have any patches torn from sleeves to show for it. It seems probable they would be on death row right now if they had.
And the badges for variations on oral sex don't exist, they say. Even if they did, performing it on a dead woman would not be worth it.
The cops have simply got it all wrong about them, Dirty Dozen members contend.
"They keep calling us a gang. We're not a gang," says Dan "Hoover" Seybert, a 36-year-old motorcycle mechanic and the Cave Creek chapter vice president. "This club is basically for going on runs and drinking beer."
Surely, just as the police are inclined to overstate the club's notoriety, club members are prone to emboss their innocence.
But so far, if the results of an ongoing investigation into the Dozen are any indication, the truth rests closer to the club's version.
For almost two years, a task force including DPS, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and investigators from the Phoenix and Mesa police departments has targeted the club.
The most intense scrutiny possible by law enforcement has been brought to bear on the Dirty Dozen in an effort to prove that it is the "most powerful and violent biker gang" in the state, presiding over an empire of drugs and mayhem.
So far, it looks as if the police are spending a lot of time and money spinning their wheels.
@body:The Dirty Dozen task force, overseen by Gonzales, has spared no effort or cost in its pursuit of the club. The investigation, paid for with money seized in other drug cases, has included the cultivation of confidential informants, the tapping of telephones, the bugging of living rooms and meeting places and the posting of 24-hour watches on some members.
The two investigators the club hates most--Phoenix police detective Jack Ballentine and Mesa police detective Larry Elliget--were assigned to the task force.
Between them, the two men have spent more than 14 years of their careers dogging outlaw motorcycle clubs, particularly the Dirty Dozen. (Neither would talk about the task force's investigation.)
The effort is rooted in history. In the mid-1980s, a similar federal probe using wiretaps and surveillance resulted in charges against almost 60 club members and associates for running a widespread methamphetamine ring, including a manufacturing lab.
Many members of the Dirty Dozen, including state leaders, went to prison, and some are still there.
Chuck Martin, one of the 12 original bikers who formed the club in 1964, says there was drug trafficking at the time, and that he dropped out of the club because of it.
But since the 1985 busts, he and other members claim, the club has cleaned up its act. Martin, who has rejoined in the last few years, says the club has stopped electing statewide officers and stuck to riding bikes. Most of the rogue element is gone.
"It's just been good from that point," Martin says.
Police scoff at the assertion. In the past several years, they claim, the club has been up to its old tricks, setting out to reclaim control of the state's methamphetamine commerce.
After 14 months of investigation, authorities brought the hammer down last September 23, the day of the raids which deprived so many club members of their bikes.
It was an overwhelming display of police might.
In teams, more than 400 police of various stripes descended in the morning on the homes of Dirty Dozen members and their friends. Altogether, 68 search warrants were served in the military-style raids, most in the Phoenix area, but some also in Tucson, where there is another Dirty Dozen chapter.
The raids were picture-perfect "show busts." Reporters were invited and television cameras rolled as motorcycles and their longhaired owners were paraded down to a temporary processing center at Arizona State Fairgrounds. The daily newspapers reported that police were gloriously successful in their efforts to "smash the Dirty Dozen."
After the raids, police trumpeted some impressive-sounding numbers, saying they had seized almost 40 bikes, more than 1,000 guns, knives and other weapons and about $18,000 in cash.
(Club members say it's no secret that they have motorcycles, guns and knives. It is, in fact, pretty much the point of being in the club. The vast majority of the weapons would turn out to be legal.)
Curiously, authorities were less specific about the amount of drugs they had found. Newspaper reports noted that police found "some" methamphetamine and marijuana.
To club members, virtually all of whom have yet to be charged with anything as a result of the now-eight-month-old raids, the day was hardly the clear-cut law enforcement triumph described in the news.
Many members tell stories about wives, girlfriends and children--some of the kids as young as 3--held at gunpoint and frisked by zealous police.
Deana Tucker, a Denny's restaurant waitress and wife of one Mesa chapter member, says a gun was held to her back as she asked police to be careful not to harm her 13-year-old daughter.
Joe Weber, a Mesa chapter member, says his 11-year-old daughter was just stepping out of the shower when police burst into the house, and that she was forced to dry off and dress under the watchful eyes of hooded SWAT team members. "There's no reason for all this bullshit," he says. "None."
Because many club members were at work during the raids, members say, it was their families, in many cases, who endured hours of terror as "ninja-suited" police officers searched their houses.
The bikes, weapons and "some" amount of drugs that police heralded after the raids were, in fact, a mere fraction of what they seized.
From a look at the seizure lists that police must provide when they take someone's property, the raid teams were virtual vacuum cleaners.
They took clothes, bank books, photo albums, computers, telephones, flags, jewelry, clocks, suspenders, pens and pencils and at least seven pairs of socks.
Almost 500 tee shirts were seized in the raids, as well as at least 50 baseball caps. Anything that was labeled "Dirty Dozen," "Harley-Davidson" or something else related to motorcycles was fair game.
Many items, members say, were seized simply because they were either black or white, the club's official colors.
"I'm glad my dog wasn't wearing a black-and-white collar or they would have taken him," one member says.
Hundreds and hundreds of pairs of dice--the Dozen's trademark symbol--were taken.
Among the odder items seized were "a piggy bank with the Dirty Dozen emblem," a velvet painting of a Harley-Davidson, three cans of beer, a feather, two Gumby bubble-bath bottles and a rubber Gumby doll and "two poems by Arlene regarding prison/bikers."
And then there was the tombstone for Lonzo Pope, one of the original Dirty Dozen members who founded the club in 1964, and its first charter member to die.
Because Pope is buried in a military cemetery, the club was not allowed to put its customized marker on the grave. Instead, members carry it to the burial ground once a year and hold a brief ceremony. The rest of the year, it is stored at a member's house, which is where police seized it.
Some of the raided homes were virtually stripped clean, members say, leaving them and their families without car registrations, insurance papers, bank records, clothes or much else to continue on with their lives.
"We were held there until they went through every bit of our house and seized everything we owned," says Deana Tucker.
Even the club members' voter-registration forms, which members had filled out to take advantage of a $10 break on club dues for registered voters, were seized from the house of the member responsible for mailing them to the county.
Attorney Joel Thompson has been trying ever since the raids to help club members get their property back. The search warrant issued by Superior Court Judge David Cole, Thompson says, was a flagrantly open-ended affair that allowed police to take pretty much anything they wanted.
Some of the personal property has been returned, although most of it is still in police hands.
The raids were, in fact, a gigantic sweep for evidence, Gonzales says. Police hoped to seize anything they needed to prove that the club is a racketeering organization, and who its members are.
So after having eight months to sift through their haul, have they?
"We're still in the middle of this case," Gonzales says.
@body:Since the raids, two lawyers in Attorney General Grant Woods' office have been periodically visiting a state grand jury seeking indictments based on evidence from the investigation and the seizures.
So far, the numbers look good on the surface. There have been 184 indictments against more than 40 people on charges such as conspiracy to distribute drugs, drug possession, weapons violations and fraud. Only a handful of the counts deal with actual drug possession, however. More than half, 98, are charges of using the telephone to facilitate a drug deal.
According to the indictments and grand jury testimony, three club members--Kenneth "Norton" Johnston, Douglas "Slut Dog" Wistrom and Dennis "Bubba" Ridenour--have been captured on tape in scores of conversations that allegedly involve drug deals.
They and other defendants, records show, use alleged code words like "menudo," "flywheel" and "tee shirt" to refer to methamphetamine.
"We've heard the gamut of words for drugs over the years. You can tell in the context of how it's used," says Gonzales. Surveillance teams watched the houses that were tapped or bugged, he says, and saw activity--such as people coming and going frequently--that supports the allegations.
Further, he says, police would sometimes perform "street jumps," pulling over and searching suspected customers after they left one of the houses. In some instances, he says, police did find drugs.
Police also say that undercover informants have told them that virtually all of the club's members are involved in drug trafficking to some extent. The prime informant, a former club member named Robert Gonzales, has claimed to have knowledge of rampant drug activity, police affidavits state.
Club members remember Gonzales as "that little prick" who was with the club briefly about three years ago. They say Gonzales quit after club members refused to beat up another member who Gonzales claimed was sleeping with his girlfriend. He turned informant out of spite, they contend, and made up much of the information he provided to police.
Despite Robert Gonzales' sweeping allegations, only Wistrom, Ridenour and Johnston, the latter who is now in Madison Street Jail, face the lion's share of the charges brought by the grand jury so far.
Taken together, police say, the evidence from wiretaps, informants and the sweeping raids prove that the entire club is a hotbed of criminality.
Taken apart, club members say, the state's allegations don't hold up.
Perusing the indictments, club members note some apparent problems in the government's theory that their organization is a full-blown drug cartel.
Besides Johnston, Wistrom and Ridenour--who club members are not convinced were dealing drugs--only one other Dirty Dozen member has been charged with any sort of drug-related crime. Three other members face relatively minor weapons violations.
That leaves about 120 club members who haven't been charged with anything, they say.
Most of the indictments, they point out, have come against people who are not club members, some of whose names no one recognizes. Many are women, they note, who are not even allowed in the club.
Further, police have yet to actually turn up any significant amounts of drugs. What was described by police as "some" methamphetamine and marijuana seized during the raids, the members say, would make a trifling inventory for a supposed statewide drug ring.
Lieutenant David Gonzales acknowledges that, so far, police have found only about 20 ounces of marijuana, one-half ounce of cocaine, five ounces of methamphetamine and a trace of LSD in the dozens of searches they have conducted.
"I know there aren't an overwhelming amount of drugs," Gonzales says. "But what we'd like to stress is that, although our affidavit stated that [the club] is involved in drugs and drug trafficking, that wasn't the sole intent of the investigation. The intent of the investigation was to show that this is an organized group, this is a criminal syndicate."
Members of the Dirty Dozen also note that, despite police claims to the contrary, there have been no charges involving actual violence made against any club members.
There has been one allegation that Johnston threatened to beat somebody up during a conversation on a telephone that was tapped by police.
Basically, as police listened on a wiretap, club member Johnston ranted in anger that he was going to beat up another man for harassing his ex-girlfriend and his children. Police surveillance quickly staked out the supposed victim, and saw that no assault ever took place.
Johnston also has been indicted on federal firearms charges, for illegally possessing weapons even though he is a convicted felon.
If they are, in truth, the brigands they are made out to be by police, club members say, where are the drugs? Where are the people they have supposedly been beating up and killing? Where is the proof that, beyond allegations of a few rogue members, the club itself is the Arizona equivalent of the Mafia on wheels?
The task force arrayed against them, members point out, has now spent 21 months and untold hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing the club. It has pulled out all the stops and used all the manpower possible. And it is no closer to proving that the Dirty Dozen is a racketeering organization now, members say, than when it started its investigation.
Gonzales says investigators are still looking, and predicts that there will be more indictments in the future. Large stashes of drugs have not been found, he says, because club members might have been tipped off about the raids beforehand.
As for victims of the Dozen's alleged penchant for violence, Gonzales says, they seldom report their injuries or seek to press charges out of fear of further retaliation by the club.
Steve Tseffos, spokesman for Attorney General Grant Woods, said the office would have no comment on where the investigation is headed, or how many other charges might be sought.
But attorneys Thompson and Steve Hart, who is representing Kenneth Johnston on the federal charges, say the cops appear to be wheezing to the finish line without much to show for their mammoth task-force probe.
If so, club members say, why have they been targeted and their lives disrupted just so the police could indulge their hatred of the club?
"If they wanna pick on somebody, why don't they go down south and pick on those guys who are shooting each other, doing drive-by shootings?" says Jamaica Rick. "Why spend all this time on us?"
Chuck Martin, one of the charter Dozen members, says the police are still nursing grudges that date back years--to the mid-1980s, when a lot of club members were actually dealing speed.
If a few individual club members are dealing drugs, or whatever, the others say, then let the police prove it and send them to jail. Otherwise, they say, they're tired of being targeted simply because they are an easily spotted target.
"If they don't like the way we dress, fine. I don't like the way they dress," says Martin. "But if you've got all that time to investigate and all that taxpayer money and you don't have anything, then screw off."
@body:On a Friday night in late April, the Cave Creek chapter meets again at the truck yard. Fewer than a dozen members are present tonight. Things have mellowed since the confusing days several months earlier, when it seemed like police were popping up everywhere the Dozen went.
The day before this meeting, the club had finally won its first major victory in the war over property seized during the raids. Superior Court Judge Stephen Gerst, finding that the police had no probable cause to seize motorcycles, ordered that the bikes be given back to all members not facing criminal charges.
Over two days, members had been allowed to enter the DPS impound yard on South 16th Street to reclaim their bikes. Cynthia Gonzales, a young lawyer working with attorney Joel Thompson on the seizure cases, escorted the bikers separately into the lot, helping them through the paperwork and hoops demanded by the DPS before it would return the bikes it had illegally seized.
They had to put up with snide comments from DPS Sergeant Bob Hopper, who did not seem happy at all to be giving the vehicles back, and then they rolled the machines outside the gate to inspect the damage.
After seven months parked in the weather, the bikes were in sorry shape--seats cracked, metal rusted, gaskets rotted away. It was a bittersweet day for the owners, to whom polishing and grooming their machines are parts of an almost daily ritual.
Still, it was a step. Although most of the bikes were not yet ready to ride, the meeting on this Friday is more upbeat than most have been recently.
Old business includes an analysis of the most recent run to Lake Havasu and Laughlin, Nevada. Before next year, members decide, they'll have to get square with the Nevada police on helmet laws in that state.
New business becomes a bizarre group-therapy session. It seems Deadeye didn't make the trip because his bike was not running. Pisshead and Bumper call him on it, demanding to know why he did not accept club offers to help him repair the bike.
"It's hard for me to ask. I don't like to ask for nothing," Deadeye says.
"We're here to help you. We are your brothers. Understand that or get the fuck out," Bumper responds.
Deadeye is not disciplined. Instead, he is given two weeks to get his Harley fixed.
There being no other new business, the Cave Creek chapter adjourns to the Driftwood bar on Cave Creek Road, where it meets up with members from other chapters.
On the sidewalk outside the bar stands Skitz, a Phoenix chapter member. At one time, it would seem, the 39-year-old man must have had a fairly high IQ. Now, after years of sniffing paint fumes and indulging in drugs, he is the club's idiot savant, and its self-described spiritual leader.
Not even he can recall exactly how his alphabet became so badly scrambled, Skitz says. "It would be foolish for me to say I haven't sustained any damage from the paint fumes," is the explanation he offers.
Skitz views the club's troubles from a different perch than his colleagues. "I haven't heard anyone equate this with the social ethnic cleansing in Sarajevo yet," he says. "I really see in my mind a real similarity. It's like in the biblical days, when the scribes would take the Scriptures and add in later verses."
Having made his point, Skitz enters the bar and rejoins the brain trust of the state's most powerful and violent biker gang.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.